For adults, participating in sports, is for the most part an elite activity. We have divided the sports world into participants and spectators. Those of us who are not professional/Olympic/national level athletes take the role of observers. Relatively speaking, there are few opportunities for the casual playing of sports, especially team sports, once we are no longer children. The division between doers and watchers that manifests in contemporary society was very much in my mind as I attended the event Why We Are Here produced by Nightswimming Theatre.
Created by Brian Quirt and Martin Julien, Why We Are Here is an itinerant “drop-in” singing event. Each Tuesday in November, people were invited to show up at various Toronto locations including City of Toronto Council Chambers, Trinity St. Paul’s Cathedral, and Theatre Passe Muraille. Led by Jani Lauzon, the forty or so weekly participants learned songs and became an impromptu choir. For someone like me who is basically a non-singer, I was transported back to public school — and in this case that was a good thing. Singing in a large group was wonderfully freeing.
Like team sports, the practice of performance arts — singing, dancing, storytelling, acting — have also been divided in to exclusive groups of doers and watchers. Why We Are Here erases that division everyone sings and everyone listens. The feeling of the evening leads me to imagine a time and a place where everyone sang and everyone danced, anyone could be a storyteller, regardless of talent or training. Perhaps this imagined idealized past is just that,…imagined. And yet, the singing of hymns in church offers this kind of experience, as does communal dancing at weddings and other milestone celebrations.
What does this have to do with Theatre of the Real?
Why We Are Here is part of a recent trend of participatory/immersive performance events. Reality in these cases arises not as an effect of real things incorporated into the performance, into worldb, but rather the audience is real. By pushing audiences into active roles — walking, singing, eating, or doing something as simple as choosing where to direct our attention among a multiplicity of narrative paths. Attention is directed reflexively back to worlda and the audience becomes both performers and the audience of themselves, their bodies and their experience in the moment. A common emotional effect of this immersive self-awareness is the utopian feeling that Jill Dolan identifies — a sense of connectedness to others and of the potential for the world to be a better place.
This leads me to wonder if this uplifted utopian feeling is a feature of all reality-based theatre, connected somehow to our desire for self-affirming authenticity.